When a young boy loses all belief in the holiday spirit and Santa Claus, a mysterious train pulls up to his house on Christmas Eve to take him away to the North Pole to witness Santa's launch. At first the boy is reluctant to embrace the magic of the moment, but the train's perilous journey, the boy's budding friendships with his fellow passengers, and sage advice from the Conductor (performed by Tom Hanks), shake the boy into the Christmas spirit.
If there's one filmmaker who can handle turning a 32-page illustrated children's book by Chris Van Allsburg into a feature-length film, it's director Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump," "Back to the Future"). "The Polar Express" (IMDb listing) is the newest admission into the CG animated market, most notably bringing a unique technology to the medium for an extended period of screen time. "Express" is a light holiday confection, brimming with Christmas flavor and adolescent fantasies, and the story marks a ripe opportunity this season for a little Santa worship and seasonal festivities. Judge by those criteria alone, and the picture is near perfect.
Though computer animated, "Polar Express" uses a special technology that required the players to fully act out the film. Their performances were later animated. It's a unique process -- a step up from the Ralph Bakshi "rotoscoped" films of the 1970s and '80s -- and it provides the animation with a distinct human quality that even Pixar hasn't been able to create. "Express" uses this aesthetic to spectacular means, adding fertile, emotive performances to a story that requires a heartfelt execution. The technology isn't perfect, as evidenced in the limited movements of the eyes and mouths, but the look of the film is often stunning and unique. It vigilantly matches the colors and scope of Van Allsburg's book with Zemeckis' own desires for yuletide adventure.
Facing an adaptation challenge unlike any other, Zemeckis has a tendency to go a little overboard padding "Express" to feature length. There are some pretty bland musical numbers scattered throughout the film, and there is a palpable awareness during the third act's North Pole arrival that the plot isn't moving as swiftly as it should. But Zemeckis knows what kids want to see, and "Express" is chock full of snappily paced action sequences (the train crossing a frozen lake is a doozy), fetishistic holiday cheer, and the appearance of the grand marshal himself, Santa (along with his horde of diminutive, tough guy elves). Zemeckis is also obsessed with roller coasters. It seems every new scene has some form of a runaway train careening down a mountainous slope, or the kids caught in some winding Santa workshop slide. "Express" does get infectiously dizzying, aided by a warmly reliable film score by Alan Silvestri (which sounds like a mash-up of "Edward Scissorhands" and "Back to the Future"). Zemeckis' goal with "Express" is to Christmas-it-up big time, and he succeeds, using his technology to imagine far away places and long lost sentiments.
Since the performances are so critical to the success of "Express," Zemeckis plays it smart and calls on Tom Hanks (in their third collaboration) to play just about everybody in the frame. As the adult voice of the lead character, his father, the conductor, a homeless spirit who rides on top of the train, and Santa, Hanks puts in a great effort for the film, filling each performance with that special, lovable Hanksian spirit. The rest of the roles (including Nona Gaye and Hanks' former "Bosom Buddies" co-star Peter Scolari) fall into line just as easily, even employing former geek overlord, Eddie Deezen ("Grease"), to voice an obnoxiously know-it-all Express passenger.
Even with some extraneous ornaments, "Polar Express" delivers the holiday goods kids will be salivating over. Ushering in an interesting form of CG animation, Robert Zemeckis furthers his reputation as a groundbreaking filmmaker, guiding "Express" to charming holiday merriment and many other unexpected delights.
Filmfodder Grade: B+
Reviewer Note: Along with the 2-D, regular engagement screening, I was permitted to view the 3-D presentation for "Polar Express" at the local IMAX theater. "Express" was constructed to take advantage of the 3-D, larger-than-life IMAX presentation, enhancing the often zig-zag, speed-thirsty visual experience in ways that cannot be perceived from the 2-D presentation. "Express" is a great film regardless of its format, but if there must be a choice made between the two screening possibilities, I would heartily recommend the IMAX presentation.